Grandfather’s Journal by Tom Maxwell

cover-200x300

In an autobiography written for his grandson’s edification, Tom Maxwell chronologically recreates his past in Grandfather’s Journal: A Grandson’s Journey into His Grandfather’s Life (WestBow Press, 140 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book covers Maxwell’s childhood as he traveled the world with an Air Force father; his military experiences as a Navy pilot and commander; and his career as a highly successful business executive who also ministered to people he calls “the least of these in our prison system.”  Maxwell sets exemplary standards for perseverance and dedication in every pursuit.

His Navy career stretched from 1955-83. He filled all the right squares while rising to the rank of Captain and a posting as an attaché in West Germany where he helped gather Cold War intelligence from the Soviet Union.

In 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, Maxwell deployed twice to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He flew two hundred missions in the KA3 Skywarrior, receiving credit for eighty-five “saves” of aircraft in distress. A short time later on a two-month TDY to Danang Air Base, he flew an additional fifty combat missions.

For most of his military career, Maxwell put his job first, even ahead of family needs. Occasionally in times of trouble, he prayed for help, but mainly as wish-fulfillment rather than with confidence in the powers of an almighty deity. Nevertheless, his prayers brought positive results. Then, at the age of forty-two, motivated by intensely focused reading and urging from his wife Betty Ann, Maxwell “accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

author-213x300

Tom & Betty Ann Maxwell

The closing fifth of Grandfather’s Journal describes a life dictated by guidance that resulted from prayer. For thirty years as a civilian, Maxwell produced excellent results in both business relations and in his prison ministry work.

He disappointed me, however, by including only ten pages on his Vietnam War experiences in this book, just half of which dealt with events in the air.

The author’s website is captaintommaxwell.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

 

9781472812551

Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.

With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.

The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.

The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.

For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.

Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.

On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.

istvan_toperczer

Dr. Estvan Toperczer

Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.

Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.

Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.

—Henry Zeybel

The Lawless Side of War by Terrell Reagan

61ebj2bvm0yl-_sy346_ 

Terrell Reagan calls his book, The Lawless Side of War: Making Millions in the Vietnam Black Market (BookLocker.com, 259 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), a “fictional memoir.” He says that the book is loosely based on actual events, explaining that he “has taken creative liberties with many details to enhance the reader’s experience. Names, locations, and other details have been changed and fictional details and characters have been added.”

Reagan goes on to tell us that this is a story of beating the draft, as well as one about “black market transactions that I created, some that I managed and others that I witnessed firsthand.”

This book is not malarkey. I worked for the Inspector General in Vietnam and we investigated many black market schemes, including some like the ones Reagan describes in this book. In other words, I believe this author knows what he’s talking about.

He has nothing good to say about the “long-haired hippies protesting the war.” As if the University of Texas where he went to school had many of those. The author had, he tells us, 254 hours of undergrad work in math and physics in college, and tried to get into the National Guard only to discover that the Texas units were all full with guys like George W. Bush and football players. Reagan didn’t want to take his chances with the draft the way many of us did.

“Every family in the U. S. that had a draft eligible loved one, which totaled in the millions, anxiously monitored the call-ups,” he writes. Well, not every family. Mine, for one, showed no interest in my draft eligibility. Their attitude was: What’s there to worry about? My father was drafted into the Marines in World War II and served on Iwo Jima. His father served in the Philippines and his father served in the Civil War. It’s what you did. You wore a uniform and went to some place where you got shot at. I guess that notion is not universal to all Americans.

So Reagan cut himself a sweet deal and that’s what this book is about. The Inspector General chased guys like him the entire year I was in Vietnam—guys who figured out angles to beat the system. We called them black marketeers and criminals.

8748

Terrell Reagan

This book delineates black market operations from the inside out. When I was on a team chasing these guys, I found the details boring. Reading this book is no different. The author spices up the narrative a bit with dragon ladies and the like, but to no avail. Changing greenbacks to MPC then to piasters and back again is just not fun to read about. The author claims this is the only book that tells how the currency laundering and black market really worked in Vietnam during the war, and he may be right.

This book confirmed my suspicions about how some sons of the rich and entitled avoided the draft and spent the war wearing civilian clothes, drinking champagne, and eating fish eggs on toast points at soirees hosted by the ambassador. So it goes.

Reagan tells us that with the money he made in Vietnam as “a civilian project engineer,”  he came back to the States and “built a large financially diversified company.” During the late eighties all of his assets were confiscated by the U.S. government, so he moved to London where he created an investment banking company. Today Reagan lives in Dallas.

—David Willson

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

51ikxuyajml-_sy346_

Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

61aqa0z9tbl-_uy200_

Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Combat Bandsman by Robert F. Fischer

9781476664811

In January 1968, military enlistments began to decline when Americans entered into a patriotic lull, and Selective Service administrators reflexively sent greetings from Uncle Sam to just about every healthy recent college graduate. That included Robert F. Fischer. A year later, Fischer arrived in Vietnam.

For most of his first year in the Army, he attended a series of schools that eventually qualified him as a personnel management specialist. Upon learning that he could play a trumpet, though, assignment personnel in Vietnam ignored his training and sent him to the 9th Infantry Division band at Dong Tam. Fischer recounts his Army band experience in Combat Bandsman: Memoir of a Tour in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, 1969 (McFarland, 256 pp.,  $29.95 paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Generally, Robert Fischer writes like a pro. He deftly weaves together humor, history lessons, insights, and his own unusual experience wrapped in cynicism. But he is a stickler for detail and sometimes tells his story as if a reader has no hint about what Army life in Vietnam was like during the war. Consequently, he explains things such as MPCs, REMFs, Saigon tea, etc. etc. etc. At one point, he devotes four pages to describing an uneventful forty-mile drive from Dong Tam to Saigon.

Combat Bandsman made me wonder why we had bands in a war zone, and Fischer feels the same way. He calls his band the “personal property” of the division commander, “utilized as he pleased for his own enjoyment and that of his subordinates and guests.” Fischer tells how the band performed at daily and weekly base functions, graduations, retreat ceremonies, the general’s mess parties and dances, honor guard ceremonies, awards ceremonies, memorial services, and an endless number of change of command ceremonies that glorified high-ranking officers.

“I never quite understood the frivolities demanded by those in the higher division echelons,” Fischer says. “For them the war was more of an inconvenience than a struggle for survival. The higher the pecking order, the more luxuries and sandbags.”

Along with wanting not to die, Fischer had no desire to kill. Despite his relatively safe job, he still had concerns for his life. The band mostly traveled from job to job in un-escorted trucks. That’s why some band members carried as much firepower as possible, which they never used because they never were ambushed.

Fischer fired his weapon in anger once when spending a night at an ARVN outpost that came under attack. “I grabbed my M-16 and took a position on the berm,” he writes. “Lying on my back to expose as little of my body as I could and using my thumb to pull the trigger, I fired off one magazine rock ‘n roll style over my head.” Before he could reload, the fight ended.

Additionally, the NVA and VC mortared or rocketed Dong Tam practically every night, attacks that killed several of his acquaintances. For a while, incoming arrived at 2200, 0200, and 0400—similar to the “10, 2, and 4” schedule for drinking Dr. Pepper, Fischer says. As a result, he focused on one thought: “Stay alive until DEROS.”

post-34986-0-56505400-1440389112

Combat Bandsman differs from most Vietnam War memoirs in that it contains a Glossary, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The notes are exceptionally well written and interesting, but I think their information would have worked  better if they had been incorporated in the text.

At the completion of his tour, Fischer felt disassociated from a “mean and disillusioned” Army with, “an officer corps saturated with career-oriented commanders, totally unclear military objectives, ever-increasing reliance on reluctant draftees to fill the ranks, and dwindling support on the home front displaying disdain for its soldiers.”

And that’s a wrap.

—Henry Zeybel

At Home in the World by Thich Nhat Hanh

1111111111111111111111111111111111111

Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen teacher, philosopher, and peace activist, has written more than a hundred books in his ninety years. His latest, At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life (Parallax Press, 192 pp., $24.95, paper; $16.99, e book), is a memoir that offers an eyewitness account of both the French and American wars in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about events that took place in Saigon, Paris, Washington, D.C , and the North Vietnamese province where he was raised.

In one typical section of the book, he writes about working at the School of Youth for Social Service near Tra Loc in Quang Tri Province, which was built by monks in 1964. Tra Loc, which was just below the DMZ, was bombed out three times and yet the school decided to rebuilt the village a fourth time because, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “if we gave up hope, we would be overcome by despair.”

Time passed slowly during his boyhood years. “When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she returned from the market,” he writes. “I would go to the front yard and take my time eating it, sometimes taking half an hour or forty-five minutes. A birthday party, a poetry reading, or the anniversary of a family member’s death would last all day.”

Creature comforts were primitive. Hanh was occasionally asked about his simple life as a monk, which included scrubbing bathrooms. He answered: “But in fact we’re lucky to have a toilet to clean. When I was a novice monk in Vietnam, we didn’t have any toilets at all.”

Hanh’s recollections of Vietnamese folklore, such as celebrating the blooming of the cherry tree, may seem unimportant to foreigners, yet Hanh writes, “taking time to create a special moment to drink tea or eat a meal together with joy, beauty, and simplicity can initiate your children into a spiritual life.”

1111111111111111111111111

The young monk in 1942

Perhaps sharing these customs during the war years could have brought peace sooner had more troops had an opportunity along the lines of what happened to one twenty-year-old French soldier in 1946. Daniel Marty happened on the temple where Hanh lived. Sharing their family stories led to a strong friendship.

“I gave him the spiritual name Thanh Luong, meaning ‘pure and refreshing peaceful life,’” Hanh writes.

The monk and the soldier spent many days in the temple until Daniel Marty was sent to Algeria. Although they lost contact, Hanh writes “when I last saw him, he was at peace.”

—Curt Nelson